Her art tells her story: Collection restored at whirligig conservation center

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For more than 30 years, Annie Hooper lived with her art. She stored it in her living room, her hallways, under the kitchen cabinets — anywhere she could find space for the biblical symbols she created from cement, driftwood, seashells and putty.

When she died in 1986, the self-taught artist left her collection — some 3,000 pieces — to  longtime friend and supporter Roger Manley, now director of the Gregg Museum of Art and Design at N.C. State University.

At least 2,500 of the biblical figures — including angels, sheep, Daniel and his lions — have made their way to Wilson and the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Conservation Headquarters in downtown Wilson.

In coming weeks, the figures will get a good cleaning and some repairs before heading to museums around the country. Last week, staff from several museums were in Wilson to view the artwork and select pieces for their collections.

The project is made possible by the Kohler Foundation. It's the same organization that provided funding in 2016 to complete the whirligigs and get the Whirligig Park open.

When the foundation needed a place to work, project consultant and retired executive director Terri Yoho reached out to Henry Walston, who chairs the Whirligig Park committee. He was more than happy to allow Kohler to use the conservation headquarters that once housed the park's whirligigs as they were restored and rebuilt.

"We wanted to help them out because they had been so helpful to us in the Vollis Simpson project," he said.


Roger Manley had a bad first semester of college and delayed going home to tell his dad he had failed calculus. Instead, he headed to the Outer Banks - hitchhiking, as so many did in the 1970s.

He asked the man who gave him a lift for ideas of things to do. Because it was raining, the lighthouse wasn't a good idea, and neither was beachcombing.

"Maybe you could go to my grandma's place," the driver said. He told her she did weird carvings, and he didn't mean duck decoys. 

So Manley went. The house looked normal on the outside. But inside, he was led through around 200 scenes from the Bible, recreated by a self-taught folk artist. It wasn't unusual for Hooper to let people walk around her house to see her art and hear her story.

"It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen," he said on a visit to Wilson last week - more than 40 years after he first met Annie Hooper. At the time he first met her, she had been making art for more than two decades.

Manley went back home to Goldsboro and started telling people about what he had seen. No one could comprehend the extent of her personal art collection that filled the home.

So he went back to Buxton and took a camera to show them.

Over the years and after many trips, Manley befriended Hooper and learned her story.


Hooper came from a big family with 23 children - biological and fostered. She was only able to have one child, a son named Edgar, who received all of her attention, Manley said.

Her son was shipped off during World War II, and her husband went to work in the Navy shipyards in Norfolk, Virginia. Hooper was left alone at the coast in an area where U-boats were being sunk.

"That freaked her out," Manley said.

Eventually, her husband, John, moved her to Virginia, where they ran a boardinghouse. Once the war ended, Hooper got to work converting the upstairs of her home to an apartment for her son, who traveled for a year after the war, Manley said. She decorated it with doilies and Victorian furniture.

When her son (30 years old by this point) came back home, he had no intention of living with his parents. His mother was devastated, Manley said. All she had wanted was to have her family back together and under one roof.

Depression got the best of her, and she ended up getting medical treatment in Raleigh and living with her sister, Mamie Jeannette, Manley wrote in "A Blessing From the Source," a biographical piece he composed about Hooper for a symposium and small exhibition on outsider art. 

Hooper's sister was very religions and ministered to prisoners on death row at Central Prison, where she worked as a teacher. Hooper went with her sister to the prison one day and saw the comfort the prisoners found in Bible stories.

"Annie began to sense a connection between her own pain and the biblical teachings in a direct way that she was unable to articulate verbally," he wrote. "Her unconscious transformation into an artist had begun because physical objects would soon offer a key to unlocking her feelings."

After she returned to Buxton she started her artwork, using an illustrated Bible as a guide and choosing scenes that had personal meaning to her. Manley said her first "symbol" - her name for the artwork - was "Moses on Mount Nebo Looking over the River Jordan into the Promised Land of Canaan."

Over the next few decades, Hooper was occupied making symbols, telling the story of Abraham and Isaac, the Exodus, King Solomon. 

In the restoration warehouse, museum curators have been looking at some of these pieces, including the many symbols that represent the dead babies thrown in the Nile and the alligators in the Nile.

The symbols are imperfect, and that didn't bother her, Manley said.

"She did it and moved on," he said.

She was in it for the overall effect.

As he walked through the warehouse, he pointed out clam shells used for eyes and shark teeth in the mouths of Nile alligators.


Terri Yoho said that although the opportunity had come up before, this was the right time for Kohler to help with the Annie Hooper project. 

"The art is wonderful, but it was created by a woman, and that has special appeal to us," she said.

She's thankful the Whirligig Conservation Headquarters was available for the foundation to use.

Professional art conservators are working in the warehouse this summer stabilizing the pieces that will be given to institutions that want them.

The museums will be responsible for caring for them in the future, she said. That was the same format used with the whirligigs.

The conservators are cleaning and stabilizing the pieces and in some cases adding paint and repairing cracks. Two conservationists were at work last week in the museum. More will be added this summer, she said, and Kohler staff will be in and out.

Shane Winter of Houston was carefully cleaning one of the figures last week. Working with him was Ben Caguioa of Madison, Wisconsin.

Winter said they were restoring the symbols to how they were created, not fixing them to be perfect. That style was the artist's choice, he said.

Henry Walston is glad to see work going on in the conservation headquarters. It's the kind of work he and others on the Whirligig Park committee wanted to see from the beginning. The hope is to see more artisans and creative people come to Wilson, he said, and open up studios and workshops.

Kohler is already bringing artists to Wilson, he added, if only to walk through conservation headquarters to see what is going on - to expose them to the art community here.

"It's a natural fit," he said.